The Kremlin’s doctrine of survival: Forward to the past

Wachen vor der Mauer des Kreml

The Russian personalised power system (the Russian System), which is the opposite of the rule of law, is showing an amazing capacity to survive – even in an advanced state of decay.

The Kremlin is attempting to prolong its life through a new containment policy consisting of, first, a domestic “conservative revolution,” second, revanchist policies that aim to undermine international agreements and, third, by forging an anti-Western International and discrediting liberal values. It is not hard to predict that this survival campaign will eventually fail, yet it remains to be seen what price Russia (and the rest of the world) will pay for this inevitable failure and its fallout.

Russia and the West – from imitation to containment

The Russian System’s struggle for survival has defied many explanations, proofing that it is able to respond to new challenges while preserving its character. At the beginning of the 1990s, the system survived by dumping the old Soviet state, affecting liberal values and professing a readiness to partner with the West. Today, such liberal crossdressing is a thing of the past; instead, the Russian authorities have relapsed into harsh authoritarianism and are aiming to become the antithesis of the West.

In 2012–2013, the Kremlin changed tactics and adopted a new survival strategy, the “Putin Doctrine,” which legitimates a more authoritarian rule at home and a more assertive stance abroad. Several circumstances forced the Kremlin’s hand, and Putin’s KGB background hardly made him the ideal candidate for implementing a reformist agenda in the first place. A couple of other factors also played a role. For the first time in Russian history the Kremlin was run by representatives of the services trained to exercise coercion. Add to this Yeltsin’s 1993 constitution, which laid the groundwork for a system headed by a leader above the political fray and unaccountable to society. Finally, the swell of protests in 2011–2012, and the fear that even a minor political struggle could threaten the Kremlin’s omnipotence became one more factor that pushed the Kremlin towards coercion and containment.

For the Kremlin, the Ukrainian Maidan and the fall of Yanukovych in 2014 was more than an opportunity to test its new doctrine. The annexation of Crimea and the support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine gave the Kremlin a justification for the patriotic military mobilisation and it confirmed its self-image of being a “fortress besieged” by an external enemy – an enemy supported by a fifth column within Russia.

Russia – the antipode of the West?

Why did Russia relapse into the role of the West’s antipode? Was it the disrespect, even humiliation, that Russians allegedly experienced at the hands of the West; was it the latter’s expansion into Russia’s areas of interests; or was it the decline of Western liberal democracy itself? I would like to argue that the shift has been informed by Russia’s failure to use its defeat in the Cold War to transform itself into a state governed by the rule of law. The Russian political elite, and especially those that presented themselves as liberal, failed to live up to their roles as reformists. The Kremlin’s shift towards militarism and patriotism is evidence of the regime’s agony and points to a conundrum: Russia is unable to turn itself into an effective militarist state as there is no real consolidating idea resonating with the people; also, the Kremlin lacks reliable repressive instruments, and a significant part of the elite and of society at large is loath to live in an isolated authoritarian state. At the same time, however, Russia cannot turn its back on militarism because its elite and sections of Russian society are not prepared to live in a state governed by the rule of law.  Thus, the agony of the current regime could end with the change of government, which would be the way the Russian System will reproduce itself prolonging its decay.

Today, after liberal reforms have been discredited, it would be hard to embark on a new democratic transformation of Russia. Possibly, Russia will have to experience even greater authoritarianism before Russians are willing to go down this path once again. On top of that, one has to remember that there are no historical precedents for how to achieve democratic transformation in a sizable empire that is also a nuclear petrostate.

In addition, there are some external factors that have facilitated Russia’s return to its authoritarian past – the West’s naïveté (the West thought that, by helping Yeltsin, it was helping democratisation) and pragmatic co-operation with Russia at the expense of normative aspects. It is one of the saddest events of the past twenty years that liberal democracies ceased to be Russia’s role model.

A demoralised society and a weak opposition

A lot will depend on the new wave of social discontent that may be triggered by a severe crisis. There are a lot of possible tipping points, however, it is uncertain whether Russia will move toward a systemic crisis or continue its gradual descent into rot and paralysis.
For the foreseeable future, even when faced with a crisis and a wave of discontent, the most likely result is that the Russian elite in will attempt to save the system by picking a new authoritarian leader. Society is just too demoralised, the opposition too weak, to challenge the Russian System itself. Right now, it appears that the illusion held by many Russians that a personalised regime is capable of ensuring “normalcy” will endure for the time to come.

The Russian System will inevitably experience further degeneration. The fact that its leader has turned to war to ensure its survival tells us that the Russian System has run out of mechanisms to maintain stability and that it is experiencing the two types of decay discussed by Francis Fukuyama, namely, “institutional rigidity” and “patrimonialism,” as “the officials with a large personal stake in the existing system seek to defend it against reform.”

One thing is certain – a democratic transition from the top, based on a pact between reformers within the system and the opposition, is impossible. For Russia, the only way out is a deep crisis that causes a revolution, which, in turn, will dismantle the system – thus creating the chance to build a state based on the rule of law. Turmoil, however, is always dangerous, especially in societies that have been purposefully forced into a Hobbesian world, in which states are in a permanent state of war.

Today, Russia is facing questions that, as yet, neither it nor the West can answer. The fact, however, that these questions are being asked at all certainly is a positive development.